Is it possible for a documentary to be utterly entranced by its subject and still show virtually no understanding of it? In the teasing yet half-baked Derrida, the 72-year-old Jacques Derrida, with raging white hair, a robust tan, and the pugnacious smile of a continental Norman Mailer, is paraded around New York and Paris as the father of deconstruction, yet you could sit through the entire film without having any idea of what Derrida deconstructed or why it mattered. We are simply meant to take him on faith as a philosophic visionary and to revel in his aura of elfin obtuseness.
There’s a lot of obscurity to bask in. Like his analytic godfathers, Foucault and Sartre (who are never even mentioned in the film — yes, it’s that slipshod), Derrida has a singular knack for stating an oblique epiphany 12 different ways. Once you’ve heard him spit out enough phrases like ”the one forgets to remember itself to itself,” you may start to long for a bit of history about how this man, with his circular wisps of hyper-cogitation, turned the academic world inside out. You won’t get it from Derrida. The directors, Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, trail their hero around like adoring grad students, and Derrida himself, while a world-class charmer, seems the only one in on the joke that deconstructing life has become, for him, a kind of shtick. He makes Gallic self-consciousness hip, and for some, that may be achievement enough.